Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Emerson and Nature

If you want to believe that Nature is sentient, and both loves and cares for humans, then it helps to live in an area like Concord, MA. The countryside there ripples in gentle folds, dotted with farms and generally prosperous. In Emerson's day, it was a bucolic paradise, close enough to Boston to attract a sophisticated population, and far enough away to be safe from the corrupting influences of civilization.
Emerson's house, The Old Manse (see the painting above), was an attractive one, large enough for his four children, plus servants, plus friends. Thoreau lived there for years, off and on. From the house, Emerson could stroll through peaceful woods and fields, where "Nature, red in tooth and claw" was rarely visible. Instead, his vision of Nature was one of peace and plenty, tamed by farms and made productive by farmers. Emerson could walk philosophically through rain and snow, knowing that his warm, snug abode lay nearby. That takes a lot of the sting out of the cold.

From this comfy position, it's possible for Emerson to write that Nature is a human being's spiritual guide, moral teacher, and source of wisdom. He can advocate contact with Nature as a cure for mental and physical disease, and can, without any sense of hypocrisy or irony, proclaim that Nature directs itself always to the good of humans, with a human-like benevolence. He doesn't mean, of course, that Nature "thinks" the way people think, but he does believe that it was designed (by exactly who or what, Emerson is vague) to benefit people.

Later in the 19th Century, people like Ambrose Bierce looked at this view of nature and scoffed mightily. They found it at best naive, and at worst, unforgiveably anthropocentric. In Emerson's world, humans are at the center of Nature, its point and focus. Nature reasons like a human, behaves like a human, and focuses creative energy on teaching humans and helping them develop sound bodies and minds. Nature functions a lot like a Boy Scout leader, to be honest. It's easy to believe in the utter goodness of Nature when one lives in Concord, and has scenes like the Old North Bridge, above, to comfort one. I still wonder, what would Emerson have thought if he'd lived in Canada and routinely been chased by mad walruses, or perhaps had his aunts nibbled by polar bears? I'm betting Nature wouldn't be so cuddly . . .
Henry David Thoreau, the Iconoclast of Concord, took Emerson at his word and set off, once, into the Maine woods, where he almost died from an overdose of Nature. The awareness that -- gasp -- Nature was indifferent to him created a crisis in his philosophy and a bit of a breach between himself and Emerson. Thoreau remained a Transcendentalist, but he backed way off from the idea that Nature is aware of humans and wants to help them. I think this is the saner, and safer, position.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Who is this man, and why is he staring off into the middle distance? It's a young-ish Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sage of Concord, whose philosophy, articulated in a series of essays, spawned the movement we know as Transcendentalism. Emerson looks so calm and assured because nothing really bad ever happened to him.

Transcendentalism has its roots in Romanticism and its head in the clouds. Its heyday was from roughly 1835 to 1845, but its influence permeated the 19th Century. We can see its Romantic roots in the following tenets:

* People are basically Good.
* Nature is Good and the source of all Goodness.
* People can be perfect, and have unlimited potential.
* Individual experience is the only experience that matters.

It differed from Romanticism in that it taught that men and women were equal, and that the mind controlled the world, not the other way around.

The Transcendentalists' view of religion gave rise to Unitarianism as we know it. It differed significantly from earlier views, and was a complete rejection of Puritanical Calvinism. In short, it taught:

* God can be known, through nature and individual experience.
* God is in everyone, and everyone is in God.
* Everyone is part of a universal "over-soul" that unites all of humanity in Goodness.
* All religions hold some truth, and no one religion is right or wrong. Religion, however, is not necessary for a relationship with God.
* The Bible is unnecessary, because it is too narrow.
* Jesus is unnecessary, because people are Good and don't need a savior.
* Miracles don't happen, and never have.
* Human religious traditions are unnecessary and harmful.

Transcendentalists had a very Platonic idea of the world -- they believed that Truth existed outside our physical sphere, and could be found out there, along with idealized versions of things that our reality merely copies. Perfection could be dragged, presumably kicking and screaming, because that's always how things are dragged in literature, into reality by study, solitary contemplation of nature, and the exercise of optimism.

As a philosophy, Transcendentalism was positive and optimistic. It affirmed the worth of every person, and the dignity of humankind. As a practice, Transcendentalism, well, sucked. The 19th Century is replete with stories of communities founded to create (does this sound familiar at all?) perfect societies. The trouble was, people didn't behave in those "Good" ways that they were supposed to. It is a tribute to the firmness of the Transcendentalists' beliefs that they didn't turn cynical sooner, as one utopian community after another failed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson stands out as the primary articulator of Transcendental thought, but he had lots of company. Margaret Fuller was his co-editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, and had a very interesting literary (and personal) career. Henry David Thoreau went into the woods to find himself, and his chronicle of that experience has inspired generations of solitary thinkers and environmentalists. Bronson Alcott embodied the belief that people were Good and could have perfect societies, and even though he failed to create any, he managed to hang onto that belief. He also fathered Louisa May Alcott, whose Little Women books continue to charm their readers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Disjointed Series of Things to Think About

Okay, only for a given value of "Romantic," because we have to make certain we define it correctly, but here are some pre-test things to think about that might prove profitable on Thursday.

What makes Edgar Allan Poe "gothic" as opposed to merely another overwrought Romantic, staring down the abyss? The concept of the sublime only sort-of comes into play with Poe. I'd venture to say that none of his settings fall into the "sublime" category of nature that Romantics were so fond of, but his storms do. The thunderstorm in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is definately siblime. And, happily, it scares the mortal poo out of everyone. I digress. "Ligeia" has so many gothic elements, it's hard to list them all, but you can't go wrong with dead women, weird turreted bedrooms, Medieval wall hangings, and the suggestion of madness and decay. Don't forget ghosts, suspected vampires, and unreliable narrators.

Yet another Poe question intrigues me. He writes in the first person so that he can show the interiority of his narrators -- their emotions, thoughts, fears, and insanity -- in ways that you just can't do with an external narrator. This limits him, though, because it means that his narrators always have to survive. You know at the beginning of a first-person story that the narrator isn't going to croak at the end of it; otherwise how would that person finish the tale? Does this survival-of-the-narrator strategy hurts the overall horror factor of Poe's tales? I kind of think it does, because I'm always thinking, "If this was so scary, how did you make it out?" I suppose this is a good place to remember the differences between terror and horror.

One of the characteristics of literature of this period is its unwillingness to do all the work for the reader. The endings of everything from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to "Ligeia" leave the reader with questions. Why do these writers refuse to tie up all the loose ends, and how does that reflect the ideas of literary Romanticism?

Let's see, we might also find ourselves discussing the condition of women in the 19th Century and the things that shaped that condition -- Romanticism, Christianity, and the American legal system come to mind. How do women fare in the stories and poems we read these past few weeks? Which writers seem sympathetic to women, and which are clearly not?

Sojourner Truth can obviously be paired with Phillis Wheatley, although their lives never overlapped. The contrasts between the two are more important than the similarities, but one has to wonder what ST would have been like if she'd had Wheatley's education. Perhaps she would not have been as forceful an advocate for justice; the experience of injustice at the hands of her owners is what made her so adamant to protect others, after all. Wheatley was less an abolitionist because she had no abuse or injustice to protest. This lack of personal experience in injustice is also what kept a number of women quiet on the subject of women's rights. They were comfortable, and felt that other women's discomfort was their own fault.

One of the characteristics of Romantic literature is the unreliable narrator, or the unreliable experience. It would be helpful to think about the ways that Goodman Brown's experiences may or may not be real, and the ways the narrator in "Ligeia" might be unreliable. Come to think of it, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" may be pulling our leg, and so might "The Raven." I see a trend.

Some short takes: It's good to know the ways that the Enlightenment and Romanticism opposed one another. Situate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Fenimore Cooper in the same philosophical box, too, in their treatment of Native Americans. Women and slaves have some of the same problems, but not the same solutions.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Raving about "The Raven"

Here's an interesting thought to ponder: What if Poe was kidding when he wrote "The Raven?"

In an essay entitled "Theme and Parody in 'The Raven,'" Dennis Eddings has made a nicely substantiated case for Poe's most famous poem to have been a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the outrageous gothic poetry of his day. Eddings contends that Poe was too good a poet to make the kinds of mistakes that we see all over "The Raven."

Remember, Poe was a literary critic as well as a poet and short-story writer. He was deservedly famous for his acerbic comments about other people's work and some people read his critiques for the pleasure of his cutting remarks. He saved his particular nastiness for the group of poets who later got named -- hysterically, in every sense of the word -- the Spasmodics.

He accused this group of being overly self-absorbed, hystrionic, unreasonable, sloppy, and careless of rhythm, phrase, and tone. By the 1840's Poe was very much dissatisfied with the Romantics and particularly with Romantic poetry.

If we look at "The Raven" as a parody, some things make sense. All of the little mistakes (like uncertain rustlings of curtains and "tinkling" footsteps on carpet), become deliberate mockery of poets who got those things wrong on purpose. The progression of the narrator from merely gloomy to absolutely plunged into the depths of despair, and all this because he's talking to a bird, takes on a new, and far less sinister, meaning. The narrator is one of those ridiculous Romantics, who cannot keep himself from falling into his own navel.

Poe frequently said, in critiquing poetry toward the end of his life, that the unrestrained imagination leads to a "dead end." Eddings makes the case that, for the narrator in "The Raven," this is exactly what happens -- he gets more and more worked up by his own imagination, and winds up stuck in the dark with a talking bird. Hardly a helpful place to be.

Possibly the most conclusive evidence that Poe is satirizing Romantic poetry lies in the form of "The Raven" itself. It is exactly the same form that Elizabeth Barrett (later Browning) used in her poem "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." Poe had reviewed Barrett's poetry unfavorably, so it's unlikely that he copied the poem for purposes of flattery. Instead, he seems to be doing, in "The Raven," everything that he criticized in Browning.

What did Poe say about the poem? He didn't get a chance to say, "Hey, this is satire!" because when it was published, it became a huge hit, and he never had the nerve to say, "Just kidding."